A second, more ambitious proposal would go even further and prohibit restaurants, stores, wholesalers and government agencies from distributing and using plastic drink bottles, utensils, stirring sticks, bags and straws.
The Hawaii efforts would be stricter than in California, which last year became the first state to ban full-service restaurants from automatically giving out plastic straws, and broader than in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities that have banned some single-use plastics.
Activists believe the foam container measure has a better chance of passing in Hawaii. "We have this reputation of setting the example for the world to follow, and that's what we're trying to do here," state Sen. Mike Gabbard, lead author of the more ambitious measure, said to the Senate. "Our state can once again take the lead in protecting our environment."
Gabbard, father of Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, said 95 percent of plastic packaging worldwide is thrown out after being used once. In the U.S., 500 million plastic straws are used and thrown out every day, he said.
Discarded, slow-to-degrade plastic is showing up at sea, as in a massive gyre northeast of the Hawaiian islands, and on beaches. Plastics also contribute to climate change because oil is used to make them, said Stuart Coleman, Hawaii manager for the Surfrider Foundation.
Eric S.S. Wong, co-owner of two fast-food establishments on Oahu, said not being able to serve food in plastic foam containers would drive up his costs at a time when he faces rising health insurance charges for his employees and a possible minimum wage hike that lawmakers also are considering.
He said he'll have to raise prices. "Now all of the sudden, your family's $30 dining experience became $37 or $38," Wong said. His Wiki Wiki Drive Inn takeout counter in Honolulu sells sandwiches, breakfast meals and Hawaii favorites like Loco Moco, which features white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy.
A package of 200 foam boxes costs him $23, while the same number of biodegradable boxes would cost $57, he said. Chris Yankowski of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, which represents 3,500 restaurants, said lawmakers are trying to do "too much too fast."
Yankowski, who is also president of Triple F Distributors, argued that good alternatives to plastic products are not yet available. Hawaii's cities and counties also don't provide composting facilities, so there is no organized place to dispose of compostable containers that lawmakers say restaurants should use instead, he added.
"It's almost like we want to do great things for the environment, but we're not ready to handle it when we change it over," Yankowski said. The Hawaii Food Industry Association, which counts the state's biggest supermarkets and convenience stores as members, initially opposed the foam container ban but now supports it.
The group said in written testimony that it's encountered difficulties coping with varied local regulations and it wants the state to create a consistent standard. Two main counties — Hawaii and Maui — have already adopted plastic foam bans. Maui's took effect on Dec. 31, while Hawaii's takes effect on July 1.
The association still opposes the broader measure, which also would ban plastic garbage bags. The president of Island Plastic Bags, a Hawaii company that makes plastic bags, said the legislation would prohibit his company from selling trash bags to nursing homes and hospitals as well as restaurants and hotels.
Grocery stores wouldn't be able to sell trash can liners, Adrian Hong said in written testimony. It would create a "public health crisis," he said. Gabbard said his proposal was in the early stages so lawmakers have time to address such concerns.
The state Senate has passed both bills. They still must get through several House committees and the full House before heading to the governor. Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, said he hasn't stated a position on the measures yet.
Justin Macia, a pharmacist in Honolulu, said he would like people to use less plastic and stop using plastic foam entirely because of how long it takes to degrade. Cardboard containers would be a great alternative, he said.
"It's definitely something that's got to go," he said, after eating a sandwich from a foam takeout box.